It was a bit chilly early in the morning as I got ready for my day trip to visit Iximche (pronounced “ee sheem chay”), a small Mayan archaeological site that
is located in the western highlands of Guatemala about two hours from Antigua, roughly halfway to Lake Atitlán. As we left Antigua, the beautiful sparkling clear blue sky was speckled with just a few clouds including one produced by the Fuego Volcano that had just recently erupted. It was just a small eruption as if Fuego had not yet had its morning cup of coffee.
The drive was interesting as we passed through some small cities and villages, experiencing the bustle of traffic as people got an early start to their Saturday activities which often includes a trip to the local mercado (market). Our van climbed high into the mountains and wound its way through the curvy roads, eventually traveling through a small town, Tecpán, just off the Interamericana highway. Shortly after we left the town, we ended up at the parking area to visit the Mayan ruins of Iximche and to visit a small museum at the site. There were only a few people around as it was still early and not quite opening time. As we exited the van, I was quickly chilled by the very crisp breeze that I hadn’t expected. I suddenly realized we up over 5,000 feet. Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared for the brisk temperature but at least my thin jacket was somewhat of a windbreaker.
We were greeted by Alexis, a very pleasant, personable and obviously intelligent multi-lingual 20-something Mayan young man who led us to a small
museum to give us an overview of what we would be seeing. There was a power failure in the museum but we were still able to see what we needed to using the dim ambient light and the flashlights on our cellphones. We saw maps of the site while Alexis gave us a detailed explanation of the history. We also saw some human remains since approximately 100 individuals were found, a few with gold headbands (which was simulated in the museum.
Iximche was the capital of the Kaqchikel Mayan kingdom from 1470 until 1524. The site includes a number of pyramid-temples, palaces, and even some
sunken ball courts, all of which are modest in scale. These structures seemed fairly well preserved despite the fact that a times, the site was looted for its building blocks and stones which have been used to construct buildings in some of the local Guatemalan villages. While the site is fairly small, it is located in a beautiful park-like setting high up in the mountains, very green with lots of mature majestic trees. There were 4 ceremonial plazas that had palaces, temples and the ball courts. On a few structures, the original plaster coating could still be seen.
The ball court was interesting but the game played was disturbing. The soccer-ish game used a “ball” which was actually a large stone that could be struck only with the hips and knees. The object was to get the stone though a
ring mounted at head height or higher on the sides of the court. (If you are having difficulty imagining how this game could possibly be played, so am I.) The game was watched only by royalty so it was a great honor to be chosen to play. However, unfortunately the kicker was (pun intended) that the winner was actually put to death as a sacrifice, which was also supposedly an honor (also difficult to imagine).
Interestingly, the area is high up on a ridge surrounded by deep and very steep (90 degrees in some places) ravines which provided safety for the Mayan capital. The rear area of the site is still used today by deeply religious Mayan people who come there to perform fire ceremonies, magic rituals, burning
copal resin, wood, liquor, candles and other items in the presence of the pyramids to ward off illness or other things. We were able to witness a fire ceremony but no photos were allowed in this very sacred area of the site.
After visiting the site, we went back into the small museum to see the rest of the exhibits that explained more about the site including how people lived, dressed, ate and other interesting aspects of the site.
We then headed to the pueblo of Santa Apolonia which is not far away. This village is well known for its handicrafts and earthenware pottery. We were able to visit the home of a poor Mayan indigenous family who was very nice and gracious to us. They talked a little about their life and showed us how they make pottery and beautiful woven items. Some of the yarn materials are hand-dyed using local plants and other materials which they showed us as well.
Interestingly, the pottery is made from very raw materials. Clay soil is purchased locally in clumps which then has to be beaten to break the clumps
into smaller pieces. It is then rolled with a rolling pin against a flat stone until it becomes clay sand. The sand is then mixed with water until it forms into malleable moist red clay. In making large round clay pots, instead of using a potter’s wheel, the woman making the pottery initially forms the clay on the ground into the beginnings of bowl and then keeping her hands on the clay, she runs in tight circles around the clay while forming it into a perfectly round pot. It was actually amazing to see how perfectly round it was! She then put the pottery in a big pile, buried it with pine needles and other dry plant materials and made a large open fire to work as a kiln to harden
the clay which takes several hours. It seems to work very well and it gives the pottery a distinct appearance of a dark reddish brown color with streaks of black.
There were several small houses on the property and there were a few chickens and dogs running around. One or more of the structures was made of mud and sticks. Of course we had a chance to purchase some items so I came home with a small but pretty vase.
We then had lunch at touristy thatched roof restaurant that was decorated in early tiki-Mayan where I had a chicken sandwich with french fries which was more than adequate. We then headed back to Antigua and got back in the late afternoon just as it was getting dark. I hope you enjoy taking a tour through the remaining photos that capture more of my interesting day trip.
Close your eyes and imagine a volcano so huge that it’s crater is 11.2 miles long, 5.5 miles wide and up to 1,120 feet deep. And imagine that this monster volcano is surrounded by 3 smaller yet sizable volcanos, classically cone-shaped, rising high into the blue sky. Then imagine that after a massive earth-splitting eruption some 84,000 years ago, this horrific giant eventually calms down, cools and over time, its enormous crater fills with sparkling clear blue rainwater that also feeds two nearby rivers. Now open your eyes. Welcome to Lake Atitlán, which some have said is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It certainly has to be!
Leaving Antigua around 8 a.m., our 3 hour van ride traveled though highways and mountainous roads that wound through a colorful assortment of villages, towns and small cities quite different from Antigua. These places were interesting but many of the buildings were run down and seemingly falling apart. There were lots of tiendas with traditional signs for Coca Cola and Orange Crush, and we even passed the “Alta Seltzer” pharmacy which was using the familiar logo in its sign. One of the small cities called Chimaltenango is apparently known for, among other things, its prostitution (which happens to be legal in Guatemala). The city was heavily traffic jammed because it is located where a number of major roads and highways converge. We passed several motels where scantily clad and heavily made up “ladies” stood outside the doorways eagerly waiting for their next “john” to arrive.
Half way through the trip, we had a 20 minute rest stop at an unexpectedly nice upscale rustic wooded lodge. The air outside was chilly since we were up well above 5,000 feet. The inside of the building was predictablyfilled with a
few taxidermied animals, and the room was smoky from the open wood fireplaces scattered throughout the restaurant (without chimneys) heating the inside. And of course, in the small gift shop and bakery, we managed to find small chocolate chip cookies that tasted just like those wonderful crunchy cookies found at traditional Jewish bakeries. We regretted not buying an extra package.
After the short break, we continued our ride as we made our way into the the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range in southwestern Guatemala. As we rose higher into the mountains, we caught glimpses below of the beautiful green-blue water of Lake Atitlán surrounded by its three renowned volcanic cones casting impressive shadows on the sparkling water. Our view of the lake played peek-a-boo with the hills and trees as we traversed the many curves and slopes of the windy mountainous roads. We eventually made our way down the mountain on some very steep roads. I could smell the musty stench of the heated brakes as they strained to keep the van at a reasonable speed. We continued down the mountain on what seemed like 45 degree angle roads, quickly declining towards the water-filled crater of the lake and finally entering the small city of Panajachel (called “Pana” by the locals) which borders on Lake Atitlán.
When the van dropped us off at our hotel, the Hotel Playa Linda, the
aggressive driver hustled us for a tip which we had planned to give him anyway. The Hotel Playa Linda is a funky, fun and colorful thatched-roof rustic buidling that was decorated in early tiki meets the Mayans in the Caribbean with some Bahamas and Central American thrown in. We loved it! At $50 a night, it was perfect. We were immediately greeted in the lobby by a rambunctious adolescent golden retriever puppy that must have been born with springs in its legs the way it was bouncing off us and the furniture.
We were also greeted by a couple of wonderfully friendly cats, a young tiger-stripped tabby and an older black cat who were both purring loud enough to compete with the motorcycles outside. There were nautical items and all sorts of tchotchkies all over the walls of the lobby and adjoining areas. This place had character plus! There was a lovely small flower-filled garden just outside the lobby with papaya trees heavily burdened with large ripening fruit. There was
also a large aviary and a parrot speaking Spanish on a stand next to the other bird cages. The cats were lurking nearby and carefully eyeing the many birds while urging us incessantly to never stop petting them.
The owner was a very friendly middle-aged guy whose look and demeanor fit in nicely to the nautical-ish tiki theme of his small eclectic hotel. Upon first seeing us, he unexpectedly greeted me by my first name- he obviously was expecting us- maybe we were only two of just a few guests checking in that day since we had arrived during the very slow season at the lake. In his very deep resonant voice, he tried his best to use what little English he knew to tell us about his favorite local restaurants that we needed to try. He gave us the key to our room (a real key, not a key card) and we made our way up the bright orange flight of concrete stairs to our room accompanied by the young affectionate tabby practically under our feet and of course, the exuberant bouncing golden puppy who seemed to fly effortlessly up the many stairs.
Our huge room contained three queen size beds covered in bright turquoise Guatemalan bed spreads and a charming red brick fireplace. A great view of
the lake was visible through the wall of windows that opened onto a very large patio with a couple of aged wood benches. After settling in for a few minutes, we went out to explore the city of Panajachel. We were told that it was off-season so there were not too many tourists although the streets seemed fairly busy. The quaint main street, Calle Santander, was lined with lots of open
shops selling many of the usual items that we’ve seen everywhere in Guatemala including blankets, table runners, clothing, shoes, artwork and all sorts of Guatemalan knickknacks, toys, worry dolls, hats, religious items and even Guatemalan Barbie dolls! The street was filled with people trying to make their way among the bustle of cars, tuk tuks, bicycles and lots of noisy motorcycles.
We enjoyed exploring the area, finding a local bakery and chocolate shop. We walked into a small bookstore and spoke to the gringo-owner, trying hard to avoid talking about the United States politics even though he seemed eager to do so.
We then found Guajimbo’s Parrilada Uruguaya Restaurant (Uruguayan barbeque), a nice gringo-owned restaurant for lunch where we enjoyed chicken filet and ham
and cheese sandwiches along with french fries and Diet Coke. After lunch we explored the central part of Pana finding the municipal area. We stumbled on a typical yet interesting open air market selling all types of fruits and vegetables, and different kinds of meat and chicken that were hanging unrefrigerated and seemingly enjoyed by lots of flies. Nearby,
we discovered a small carnival adjacent to the main church complete with two rickety, rusty and crudely painted multi-colored Ferris wheels that looked like a hazard waiting to happen along with a few other carnival games. We were surprised that these rides actually worked and we had to cringe when the ferris wheel seemed to be going way too fast for the way it was constructed. There were a few other rides as well, most of which looked equally unsafe and put together with spit and chewing gum.
That evening for dinner, we ended up at Guajimbo’s again since besides having
good food, we were lured by the beautiful live acoustic guitar Latin music being played by a couple of local guitarists. We shared a traditional dinner of chicken, rice and vegetables. After dinner, we stopped outside a couple of other restaurants to listen to more live music. One of the groups was a terrific and entertaining Guatemalan “girl band” dancing in unison like the “Temptations.” After a while, we were tired from the days travel so we splurged on a Tuk tuk (15Q or just under $2) and headed back to our hotel.
The following morning, we were up early since we had booked a boat tour to three pueblos or villages located across the lake. We were picked up by a driver in a tuk tuk who sped us to a nearby open-air makeshift restaurant for
breakfast. A young man was the only server, and a woman who appeared to be his mother was the cook. They were busy scurrying around to feed the many people who showed up for an early breakfast prior to the tour of the pueblos. We had a traditional Guatemalan breakfast of eggs, tortillas, frijoles (black beans) and platanos (fried plantains) along with the no so traditional panqueques (pancakes or humorously translated as “bread what what”- people who know Spanish will understand this) and café (coffee).
After breakfast, we took a small bus to the nearby dock. We boarded the relatively small fiberglass skiff that probably sat about 20 people and didn’t look quite suitable for the very choppy waters of Lake Atitlán. Shortly after leaving the dock, the boat’s driver threw the boat into full throttle and we began zipping and skipping across the water, with a strong head-wind blowing our hair and splashing drops of cold water in our faces. The water was so choppy that the boat felt like it was bouncing off blocks of solid concrete rather than water. Nonetheless, we were distracted by the breathtaking view of the lovely blue-green white capped water together with three immense cone-shaped volcanos that were all around us.
It took about 20 minutes to cross the enormous lake when we finally arrived at the village of San Juan La Laguna on the southern shore of the lake. This is a
aquaint, charming and colorful village with very steep streets giving us plenty of exercise. Upon arriving, our tour guide, a pleasant local guy, pointed out that the top of the nearby mountain formed the silhouetted profile of a Mayan man lying down. It took us a while to make it out but there it was — we think. We then visited an artist’s
gallery and also a place where they made cloth items woven with naturally dyed cotton yarn of various thicknesses. They gave us an infomercial demonstration of the plants and related materials that are used to make the dyes. We were also shown how the raw cotton is dyed, spun into yarn, and then woven to make the beautiful cotton items that they were selling. Of course I had to buy something – a small embroidered table runner.
We then walked around for a little while exploring the village and seeing a number of beautiful and interesting murals and several nice shops. I managed to buy a woven multi-colored book bag for school. We then came across a shop which to our surprise had a large
selection of beautiful woven multi-colored yarmulkes which we certainly didn’t expect to find. So of course I had to buy two even though it was so hard to chose which ones since they were all wonderful. And I even learned the Spanish word for yarmulke — “yamaka.”
From there, it was a fairly short but still bumpy boat ride to our second village, San Pedro La Laguna on the southwestern shore. As we approached this picturesque little village with its houses and buildings nestled up the hillside, we noticed a fairly large hotel with an Israeli flag flying high above it. Apparently there is a sizable Israeli population there. The village seemed to cater to the hippie-ish earthy types. There were natural juice shops, yoga studios and restaurants offering organic, gluten-free, sustainable,
locally sourced and non-GMO food. And apparently marijuana is plentiful as well although it is not legal in Guatemala. Again, there were lots of shops selling the usual Guatemalan items. We didn’t stay all that long.
From there, we headed to our third village, Santiago, the largest town on the lake, which is across the lake and southwest of Panajachel. Our tour guide pointed out an older man wearing traditional embroidered lavender stripped pants. Apparently the women wear purple stripped skirts as well. Our group decided to have lunch at a small quaint restaurant that quickly became obviously overwhelmed by our group of maybe 12 to 15 people. We enjoyed a lunch of pepián de pollo (“comida típica”– a traditional Guatemalan chicken dish in a tasty dark sauce with carrots and quisquil (a local green squash-like vegetable tasting a bit like an artichoke heart) together with tortillas, rice and Coke Zero. Lunch unfortunately took a very long time because the restaurant was not equipped to handle the crowd.
After lunch, we took a quick walk to the center of town to visit Colonial Church
which was worth the effort. It was built in 1547 and is one of the oldest Catholic churches in Central America. It was simple but very nice with lots of ornate imágines (religious statutes) around the walls of the church. A memorial plaque along with posted information just inside the entrance commemorates Father Stanley Francis Rother, a missionary priest from Oklahoma who was apparently loved by the local people and considered to be somewhat of a local hero. Sadly, Rother was murdered by ultrarightists in the parish rectory next door to the church in 1981 during the political struggles in Guatemala.
On our way back, a lovely Mayan women demonstrated how to create a traditional Mayan Tocoyal “Hat” or head wrap from a single thick flat piece of woven
colored cotton . She seemed to have fun showing us and there were smiles all around. After our visit, we then headed back to the boat which took us to Panajachel. The water was so choppy by that point that the boat continually smacked the water so hard that we couldn’t wait to get off the boat.
That night, we walked around Panajachel again and then ended up at the Circus Bar restaurant, a really upbeat pizza and pasta place complete with great live music and filled with vintage circus items and posters. It was a very unique and fun-filled three-ring dining experience. Afterwards we walked along the main drag and caught a few more live bands playing in the local restaurants.
The next day, which took another 2-3 hour van ride to Chichicastenango which
is known for its gigantic Sunday open air mercado (market). When we got there, we were greeted by numerous “tour guides” offering to take us around since it was supposedly so easy to get lost in the enormous maze-like market. We took our chances. It was pretty amazing to experience such a huge mercado and no, we didn’t get lost except on purpose. The sights, sounds and smells enhanced the overwhelmingly great experience, especially in the areas where all types of food was being prepared and sold. It seemed like everything imaginable was being sold at the mercado from beautiful fruits and vegetables, to household items, woven products, toys, candles, clothing and more. There was even a woman selling some Guatemalan version of “snail oil.” Her passion was astounding! We bought several dozen sets of worry dolls (you never know when you’ll need them) from a wonderful young family that allowed us to take their photo. We
found a nice restaurant for lunch which was a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the phrenetic chaotic mercado. We also visited the central cathedral, which was dark inside where we witnessed Mayan fire ceremonies of different indigenous people on the floor of the church burning candles, leaves and other items as they solemnly prayed on their knees.
After spending a few hours there, we eventually made our way back to the small van which was overly packed with passengers. Additional seats had clearly been added. It was a bit nerve wracking to be squished in but fortunately we made it back safely after the almost 3 hour trip to Antigua.
Aldous Huxley, the famous author of “Brave New World” (and who ironically lived on our street in Los Angeles) in his 1934 travel book, “Beyond the Mexique Bay” stated: “Lake Como [in Italy], it seems to me, touches the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanos. It really is too much of a good thing.” I am so glad that Lake Atitlán is too much of good thing since it absolutely must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. (Don’t miss all the photos that follow).